Breastfeeding tore my skin and left me with physical scars

My breastfeeding journey with my newborn started with me in pain, shivering and shaking with infection, and 13 months later, that’s sadly the way it ended.

It’s common to hear about breastfeeding problems in the early days, but mine never really ended, even a year later. Now, my son is 20 months old, and I’m still processing my inability to exclusively breastfeed him.

It doesn’t surprise me that breastfeeding rates in the UK are depressingly low. According to the government’s Public Health reports, only 36% of women are still exclusively breastfeeding after 6-8 weeks.

The heartbreaking reality is that a National Maternity Review reported that 90% of women stopped breastfeeding before they wanted to. 

The good news is that there is much more openness about breastfeeding difficulties now.

For me, it was a much bigger trauma than my labour, and that wasn’t a good experience either.

I went through a 38-hour labour with a back-facing baby who had to be pulled out with forceps. As with breastfeeding, it became another physiological problem that made me feel like a failure at the very beginning of my parenting journey.

There’s no lonelier experience than sitting on a hard-rock hospital bed at 1am with a hungry baby that is physically unable to feed. Born at 8am, my baby only had a few drops of colostrum (the golden nutrient-dense liquid that is produced before milk) that I’d managed to harvest in all that time. 

He cried for hours and I felt awful. I was on a ward with three other mothers and their babies, who’d also had difficult births and needed to sleep.

A nurse finally brought me some formula to give him. He’d been so hungry that he hadn’t slept or gone to the toilet for the first 13 hours of his life. After a few sips of premade milk, he finally filled his nappy and then fell asleep for five hours.

I experienced a now-familiar combination of relief and guilt.

Formula isn’t poison and it kept my baby alive, but I still felt that my entire plan for motherhood lay in tatters.

When my milk did ‘come in’ it was a pitiful amount despite all the pumping I’d been doing. I had no choice but to combi-feed with both breast milk via a bottle and formula milk.

After two weeks, my nipples were so damaged from the high suction setting that I developed mastitis, a breast infection. I logged all his feeds on an app, but the breast milk never surpassed the formula, despite my best efforts.

I tried six different breast pumps and various shapes of nipple shields but I just couldn’t get to the point of exclusively giving him my milk.

It took two months to get him to latch, but only to one breast as the nipple of my other one was too flat. I had mastitis twice more, and this combination of pain and trauma meant that after three months I stopped pumping from my right breast.

Now that he could latch, I accepted that I could only feed from one side, hoping that I’d managed to salvage the situation the best way I could. What I didn’t realise was that it would be as physically scarring as it had been mentally.

As my son grew, his sleep went downhill, with him falling into a new regression every few weeks due to his rapid development. From the ages of seven to nine months, he would wake up every 60 minutes and be up for hours. 

On top of that, he was teething and when his front two came through I breastfed him for eight hours to soothe him during the night. It was suffocating but it was the only way he would sleep at all.

I felt drained in every sense of the word as I continued to give him everything I could. In the haze of those months, he was on and off my nipple so much that it began to tear. I continued to feed as it was the only way I could get him to go back to sleep, which meant that the hole got bigger.

Breastfeeding became agony and I carried on even when I could see the flesh inside my nipple. I fed like this for four months and my breast would be stuck to the inside of my bra with blood.

While I didn’t want to continue breastfeeding, I didn’t want to stop either. The idea of carrying a child around for hours in the night was overwhelming to me as he would only let me sit down while feeding. 

I paid for a consultation with a lactation consultant and she advised me to do breast compressions, which is where you press them while feeding to encourage the ducts to empty and produce more milk. It didn’t really improve anything, if anything it made me feel worse to try to squeeze more milk from my depleted breasts.

In some ways, it was a relief when I got mastitis for the fourth time. The decision had been made for me as the wound wouldn’t heal unless I stopped and I couldn’t cope with mastitis for a fifth time.

As I was physically and mentally unable, this was the end. After 13 months my fraught breastfeeding journey was over.

My nipple now has an inch-long scar across it that will be there for life. Despite everything, I’m glad I did it. Without breastfeeding, I just don’t know how I would have survived through those nights.

As far as I’m aware, being physically scarred by breastfeeding is very unusual. But it shows that we normalise the pain and wounds that come with childbirth and feeding, and the postpartum period exists long past those first six to eight weeks.

The one regret I have is that I put so much pressure on myself at such a tough time in my life. While nobody in my life forced me to breastfeed, I do feel that there is still a judgmental cloud over motherhood where we are harshly critiqued for our feeding choices.

For me, this is what was going on ‘behind the scenes’ but for others, it can be much worse.

I believe that the expectation to breastfeed without any support or understanding is a reflection of a society that doesn’t treat mothers with the empathy or kindness that they deserve.

As my son gets older, I feel like I’m slowly evolving past the trauma of that first year. While I won’t forget those terrifying feeding days, I do look forward to the future we have together.

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